ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- By late afternoon, the cars sat parked in single file along the far wall of pit road, covered against a steady rain. For all the plans NASCAR made to honor Dale Earnhardt, nothing matched the simple eloquence of the mournful gray sky that hung above The Rock and forced postponement of the Dura Lube 400.
Racing was going to be the balm that began healing a troubled sport. Instead, just seconds after the start, Dale Earnhardt Jr. careened into the concrete wall between turns 3 and 4, and suddenly it appeared more than the sport was in need of repair.
But after a few tense seconds, TV cameras caught Earnhardt Jr. moving in the cockpit of his mangled car. He climbed out of the wreck not long afterward, bruised but unhurt.
''I think it's killed the car,'' Earnhardt Jr. said, getting his priorities mixed up. ''But we're doing all right.''
Then, realizing the shudder that swept through the grandstands moments earlier was no more powerful than the one that must have wracked widowed Teresa Earnhardt, he carefully repeated himself.
''I want everybody back home to know,'' Earnhardt Jr. said, ''that we're feeling OK.''
Whether NASCAR officials will be able to say the same remains to be seen. By lap 52, two-plus hours after Earnhardt Jr. was tagged from the rear and bounced into the wall, officials finally tired of playing tag with the shifting storm fronts and put the rest of the race off until Monday. But it was a star-crossed effort from the start.
Just before the 11 a.m. driver's meeting at the North Carolina Speedway, the wife of one of Earnhardt Jr.'s crew members was rushed to the hospital suffering a diabetic seizure. Then he showed up late for the meeting, barely arriving in time to hear the final pre-race instructions from events director David Hoots.
''We all know what we need to do,'' Hoots said, surveying the packed room. ''Be around at the finish.''
All the calls for caution this week and the questions about safety made no difference. All the well-wishers and the tributes to his father, all the other drivers and pit crews wearing black-and-red baseball caps with the familiar No. 3 above the bill afforded the son no special treatment.
A clean, close, thrilling race at The Rock -- historically, one of NASCAR's safest venues -- would have enabled NASCAR to press on with its claim that what it's selling are hard-charging competitors in the grand tradition of Earnhardt and not danger. What we got was a muddied reminder that the only thing that separates one from the other is luck. Maybe that's what the people who run NASCAR should have known when they awoke Sunday morning to find a sky that was just waiting for the appropriate moment to cry.
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